Fish fillet sizzled on the stove at Malis restaurant as chef Luu Meng fiddled with his newest creation. Everything on the counter, from the shucked snails to the snap peas, was a product of the Tonle Sap lake or surrounding countryside. The idea, said Meng, was to represent the cuisine of the region at the gourmet level.
“No need to add monosodium!” said Meng, as he added stock from fish bones to the pea sauce. Freshwater shrimp from the lake went in the pan next while the snails were cooked with basil, lemongrass, red chili and green chili.
Meng’s mission for the past two months has been to unveil little-known regional delicacies such as Banteay Meanchey fish terrine salad and Battambang coconut custard. Every region, said Meng, has its own signature dishes, and it is time for the world to learn them.
To promote the diversity, Meng rotates a special menu featuring food from a particular province every month. Last month began the “Regional Culinary Journey” with a Battambang-themed menu, while this month features Banteay Meanchey. Next month hasn’t been decided for sure, but Meng is considering Siem Reap.
“The people from Phnom Penh do not cook the same as people in Siem Reap, or in Kampong Thom,” he said, adding that he aims to eventually travel to every corner of the Kingdom to seek out regional varieties.
Preferences are largely determined by the local fisheries and agricultural output, with river fish concentrated along the Tonle Sap and Mekong while seafood is prevalent along the coast. Kampong Cham, with its large industrial farms, is known for its peanuts and cassava while Meng said that Battambang raises the most succulent beef cattle.
The diversity of Cambodian cuisine is not well-known even among Cambodians, said Meng, adding that people tend to stick to their own local favourites.
He said: “You have a lot of people who go out to eat, and they go to the same restaurant and order the same dish. Maybe even at the same table.”
Meng and other culinary experts also fear that these regional specialties may fade out before they are given their due credit on the national stage.
Sro Rithy, Vice Dean of Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) School of Hospitality and Tourism, said that interest in foreign and fusion cuisines has supplanted traditional dishes among youth.
He said: “Most people in Cambodia do not know at all – they have nearly forgotten their traditional food.”
Nowhere is this more evident, said Meng, than in the advent of instant noodles.
“They are killing part of the character of each of the provincial foods,” he said, explaining that handmade rice, egg and cassava noodles cooked to regional specifications are becoming a thing of the past.
“Like fast food, it will grow if we don’t do anything. It is our responsibility to stop it.”
Meng chooses to wage his war against culinary blasphemies in the Malis kitchen, where he said each item is about 70 per cent traditional and 30 per cent adapted to modern methods. The snails, for instance, are cooked outside the shell in contrast to local customs.
“The local people cook with the shell, but now we put them into the salt water with the chili and the basil, so the snail is very sour and spicy, and it gets out all these dirty things,” he said.
Across town in the kitchen of Khmer Booloom, an upscale Cambodian restaurant, chef Tourn Sarim has put modern spins on some of the Kingdom’s least-known dishes. Although his restaurant features food from all over Cambodia, with each menu page devoted to a particular region, Sarim is proudest of his samplings from Mondulkiri’s Bunong minority.
“People want to eat healthy food, and the minority food uses ingredients from nature,” said Sarim, adding that he spent time at a Sen Monorom guesthouse picking up the recipes from the owner, who he met through a mutual friend.
The food of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri makes extensive use of foraged plants and hunted wildlife, including boar, deer, rabbit and bat. But serving wild animals in Phnom Penh would be neither practical nor legal, so Sarim contents himself with substitutes. His sour bamboo soup, for instance, features dried beef instead of boar. The traditional method of cooking soup in Mondulkiri is also replaced.
“The Bunong will put all the ingredients into the boiling pot at the same time, but we boil the meat first and then the vegetables,” explained Sarim.
But the uniqueness of the Bunong cuisine, with its strong taste of tangy herbs, is preserved.
Chefs like Meng and Sarim are granted additional creative leeway by the lack of standardised recipes in the Kingdom. The written record is sparse, with transmission of knowledge dependent upon oral tradition. According to Rithy, Cambodia cuisine’s lack of documentation hinders its preservation.
He said: “They teach from generation to generation without specific, clear recipes, and day by day the young generation goes toward modern. Some of the people who learned from the old generation, they just make up new recipes.”
Meng and Sarim agreed that a proper cookbook needs to be written to document Cambodia’s culinary diversity. PSE already published a book titled The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia, which emphasises desserts, but no Cambodian cookbook currently goes beyond the well-known national dishes like fish amok. Both Meng and PSE have plans to write them in the future, although no release dates have been set.
To keep culinary knowledge alive, PSE has organised annual cuisine festivals in Phnom Penh each of the past two years at the Olympic Stadium. Cuisine Festival 2014, which was held in March, brought more than 100 cooks from 19 provinces to share their local specialties. By bringing the cooks to one place, Sarmin explained that the hope is to ultimately put Cambodian cuisine onto the international food map.
“Thailand and other countries promote their national food a lot and this is the first step – we must discover and gather,” he said.
At Malis, Meng agreed that it may be necessary to advance Cambodian cuisine by looking at its roots in the provinces.
“With my learning experiences with the people in the countryside, we can keep their tradition and enhance it, and share the experience with our customers.”
He also predicted that Cambodian cuisine will rise to international prominence as chefs learn to best utilise the traditional ingredients. And while the Kingdom’s chefs have borrowed foreign ideas in the kitchen, Meng said that Western chefs also stand to learn from their Cambodian counterparts. Whether it’s making vinaigrette out of river lobster brain or sautéing a fish tail, Cambodians know how to make the most out of everything that crosses the cutting board.
To demonstrate, he brought out a plate of fish heads caramelised in palm sugar after serving their fillets. The meat, which fell easily off the cheeks, was sweet and tender.
“For this one, the European chefs have to learn from the Cambodians, because with the European chefs, the head goes into the rubbish bin. But for me, I know how to use the fillet, I know how to use the bone, and I know how to use the head. This is the Cambodian way – we love to eat this.”